BALTIMORE (AP) — It was the middle of the night when a dispatcher’s 12-second warning crackled over the radio: A massive cargo ship had lost its steering capabilities and was heading toward the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

Within about 90 seconds, police officers responded that they had managed to stop vehicle traffic over the Baltimore bridge in both directions. One said he was about to drive onto the bridge to alert a construction crew.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows a view of the Francis Scott Key Bridge that was struck by a container ship in Baltimore, Md., on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. The container ship lost power and rammed into the major bridge causing the span to buckle into the river below. (Maxaar Technologies via AP)

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows a view of the Francis Scott Key Bridge that was struck by a container ship in Baltimore, Md., on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. (Maxaar Technologies via AP)

But it was too late. Powerless and laden with huge containers, the vessel smashed into a support pillar.

“The whole bridge just fell down,” a frantic officer said. “Start, start whoever, everybody ... the whole bridge just collapsed.”

When the shipping vessel Dali slammed into the pillar around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, it caused a long span of the bridge, a major link in the region’s transport networks, to crumple into the Patapsco River. The loss of the bridge is expected to snarl commuter traffic and disrupt a vital shipping port.

At least eight people went into the water. Two survived but the other six, part of a construction crew that had been filling potholes on the bridge, were missing and presumed dead. A search for their bodies was to resume Wednesday morning.

Among the missing were people from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, according to diplomats from those countries. The Honduran man was identified as Maynor Yassir Suazo Sandova.

An American flag flies on a moored boat as the container ship Dali rests against wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, Tuesday, March 26, 2024, as seen from Pasadena, Md. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

An American flag flies on a moored boat as the container ship Dali rests against wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, Tuesday, March 26, 2024, as seen from Pasadena, Md. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Federal and state officials said the crash appeared to be an accident. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, and ship traffic entering and leaving the Port of Baltimore was suspended indefinitely.
 

Capt. Michael Burns Jr. of the Maritime Center for Responsible Energy said bringing a ship into or out of ports in restricted waters with limited room to maneuver is “one of the most technically challenging and demanding things that we do.”

“So there really is few things that are scarier than a loss of power in restricted waters,” he said. And when a ship loses propulsion and steering, “then it’s really at the mercy of the wind and the current.”

Video showed the ship moving at what Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said was about 9 mph (15 kph) toward the 1.6-mile (2.6-kilometer) bridge. Traffic was still moving across the span, and some vehicles appeared to escape with only seconds to spare. The crash caused the span to break and fall into the water within seconds, and jagged remnants were left jutting up from the water in daylight.

Police said there is no evidence anyone went into the water other than the workers, though they had not discounted the possibility.

A senior executive at the company that employed the crew, Brawner Builders, said they were working in the middle of the bridge when it fell.

“This was so completely unforeseen,” said Jeffrey Pritzker, the company’s executive vice president. “We don’t know what else to say. We take such great pride in safety, and we have cones and signs and lights and barriers and flaggers.”

Jesus Campos, who has worked on the bridge for Brawner Builders and knows members of the crew, said he was told they were on a break and some were sitting in their trucks.

A Coast Guard cutter passes a cargo ship that is stuck under the part of the structure of the Francis Scott Key Bridge after the ship his the bridge Tuesday, March 26, 2024, in Baltimore, Md. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

 

Rescuers pulled two people out of the water. One person was treated at a hospital and discharged hours later.

The crash happened long before the busy morning commute on the bridge, which was used by 12 million vehicles last year.

From 1960 to 2015, there were 35 major bridge collapses worldwide due to ship or barge collisions, according to the World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure.

Tuesday’s collapse is sure to create a logistical headache along the East Coast for months, if not longer, shutting down shipping traffic at the Port of Baltimore, a major hub.

Paul Wiedefeld, the state’s transportation secretary, said vessel traffic in and out of the port would be suspended until further notice, though the facility was still open to trucks.

“Losing this bridge will devastate the entire area, as well as the entire East Coast,” state Sen. Johnny Ray Salling said.

A container ship rests against wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge as night falls on Tuesday, March 26, 2024, as seen from Sparrows Point, Md. The ship rammed into the major bridge in Baltimore early Tuesday, causing it to collapse in a matter of seconds and creating a terrifying scene as several vehicles plunged into the chilly river below. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A container ship rests against wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge as night falls on Tuesday, March 26, 2024, as seen from Sparrows Point, Md. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said it was too soon to give a time frame for clearing the channel, which is about 50 feet (15 meters) deep, while President Joe Biden said he planned to travel to Baltimore soon and expects the federal government to pay the entire cost of rebuilding.

Synergy Marine Group, which manages the ship, said the impact happened while it was under the control of one or more pilots, who are local specialists who help guide vessels safely in and out of ports. Synergy said in a statement Wednesday that one crew member was treated at a hospital for a minor injury.

COPYRIGHT 2024 ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.